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THE RHETORIC OF REPENTANCE

A LITERARY READING OF THE REBUKE AND RESTORATION

OF DAVID IN 2 SAMUEL 11:27-12:25

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J. Alexander Rutherford

2017
2

In 1998, the USA was embroiled in controversy as allegations of sexual misconduct were

brought against its president at that time, Bill Clinton. This incident had the potential to create

serious consequences for the president and his family, though these consequences never

emerged. President Clinton was not the first leader to succumb to the temptations of lust enabled

by the possession of great authority: 3000 years earlier, another ruler found himself in a similar

but far more disastrous situation. In this instance, God’s chosen king of Israel, David, did not

only commit adultery but murder. Like Clinton, David’s sin was brought to light and with this

revelation came the potential of grave consequences for David and his family. Not only was his

reputation at stake but also his life and the life of his family, even the enduring covenant that

God had promised him. Second Samuel 11:27-12:25 records this incident and the beginning of

its consequences in an expertly crafted historical narrative that uses the best techniques of

Hebrew literature to communicate what happened and its significance.

I maintain as the thesis of this paper that the author of 2 Sam 11:27-12:25 has carefully

crafted his account to demonstrate the surety of God’s faithful commitment to His promises with

David despite the enduring consequences of David’s sin.1 To demonstrate this thesis, we will

engage in a literary reading of the text, laying out the key ways the author has achieved this end.

First, we will see the place of this text in the context of 1-2 Sam; then, we will look at how the

author employs sentence and discourse level literary tools such as inclusio and the manipulation

of knowledge to underscore his purpose; finally, we will look at the word-level devices

employed by our author, namely Leitwörter.

1
“Author” is used in this paper to refer to the implied author, who is (regarding 1 & 2 Samuel and our
purposes) the equivalent of the narrator. These two terms, ‘narrator’ and ‘author,’ will be used interchangeably for
stylistic variation.

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The Text’s Greater Context

Beginning with the greater context of First and Second Samuel, space only permits brief

analysis. It is commonly acknowledged that the theme of First and Second Samuel is the rise of

Israel’s monarchy, especially David as God’s chosen king.2 This is hinted at from the outset

when Hannah, in her prayer, speaks of God strengthening His king and exalting the horn of His

anointed (1 Sam. 2:10). Because there is yet to be a king on the stage, this verse prepares us for

the arrival of one. The emphasis on “His king” also calls into question the role of Saul, who is

the king the people seek (Chs. 8, 10). Another theme of these books relevant to our passage is

that of the falling of leaders. The first chapters of First Samuel deal not with a king but with the

failure and cursing of the priestly line of Eli. Saul, next, is rejected when he fails the key trials he

faced (Chs. 12-15). Even Samuel’s sons are rejected for their behavior (1 Sam 8:1-9). These two

themes seem to be in tension when we reach 2 Sam 11-12. David appears to be the chosen king

of God; God’s true monarchy seems to have arrived! Yet, like the other leaders before him,

David fails and appears to be on the verge of rejection.

This tension is not only invoked by these macro themes: the author deliberately alludes to

the rejection of Saul in our text to heighten it. Three times in the chapters describing Saul’s

rejection, his sin is identified as disobeying God’s word or command. First, in 1 Sam 13:13,

Samuel indicts him for disobeying a specific command from YHWH. In the next two verses

(15:10-11, 15:23) he is said to have more generally “not performed [YHWH’s] commandments”

2
Bill T Arnold and Bryan Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament : A Christian Survey (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008), 158; Crossway Bibles, ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version, ESV text ed.
(Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 485; David M. Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical
Books (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1993), 141.

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and to have “rejected the word of the LORD” (cf. 15:26).3 When Nathan confronts David, he

raises the stakes by telling him that he has “despised the word of YHWH.” This calls to the

reader’s mind Saul’s rejection and even suggests an escalation from the sins charged to Saul

(from refusing, ‫אס‬
ָ‫מ‬ָ , to despising, ‫)בָזָה‬. Furthermore, when Saul is rejected, he is told that God

has given the kingdom to Saul’s neighbor; when David receives God’s judgment of his sin, he is

told that God will give his wives to his neighbor—deliberately alluding to the judgment of Saul.4

The text, then, invites us to compare the trial of Saul and the trial of David.

In 2 Samuel 11-12, we see David perfectly poised for a fall. Here, David has risen to the

peak of his life and kingship: he has enjoyed favor from God and man throughout the narratives

in 1-2 Samuel and reaches the height of success just before Chs. 11-12. The author sets up his

narrative, with the trial interrupting the conquest of David’s enemies, as an instant litmus test for

the success or failure of David in this trial. After the narrator describes God’s covenant in Ch. 7,

the following accounts deal largely with David’s success in war and politics—God giving him

peace from both external and potential internal enemies (8-10). This corresponds to the first of

two major promises in this covenant, “I will give you rest from all your enemies” (2 Sam. 7:11).

This promise does not see its fulfilment by the end of these chapters. In fact, just before the

account in Chs. 11-12, a new war begins with Ammon. Chapter 11, v. 1, opens the account of

David’s fall with the startling notice that David has stayed home, but Joab is out at war. Though

3
All quotations of Scripture outside of 2 Sam. 11:27-12:31 are taken from the ESV. The Holy Bible:
English Standard Version (Wheaton, Ill.: Standard Bible Society, 2001). All references to 2 Samuel 11:27-12:31 are
my own translation.
4
Cf. David G. Firth, 1 & 2 Samuel, Apollos Old Testament Commentary 8 (Nottingham, England;
Downers Grove, Ill.: Apollos; InterVarsity, 2009), 428.

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it is debated,5 that twice in this verse the author draws attention to David’s absence from the war

(“when the kings… David sent Joab…. But David remained in Jerusalem”) suggests that the

author—whether giving a negative judgment or not—is preparing the reader for a complicating

action: something, he suggests, is not right. This account, of the siege of Rabbah, is suspended

until 12:26-31. Thus the author forms an inclusio: the success of this war is interrupted by

David’s test, suggesting that what happens in Jerusalem is intimately related with the eventual

success of the siege. That Rabbah is conquered at the end of Ch. 12, in continuing fulfilment of

Ch. 7, demonstrates the success of David through his trial—the promises have not been

nullified.6 The Rabbah scene introduces tension in regard to the first major promise of the

Davidic covenant;7 the second, an enduring house and kingdom for his son, will be called in to

question by another inclusio within our text, as we will see below.

Discourse Level Literary Devices

Having seen how the greater context of 2 Sam 11-12 prepares us for reading these

chapters, we will now zoom in on 11:27-12:25 and see how the author employs large scale

literary tools to demonstrate the endurance of the promises made to David despite his sin. Within

5
J. Robert Vannoy, 1-2 Samuel, ed. Philip W. Comfort, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream,
Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 2009), 331; A.A. Anderson, 2 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary v. 11
(Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, Publisher, 1989), 153; P. Kyle McCarter, ed., II Samuel: A New Translation with
Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, 1st ed., The Anchor Bible v. 9 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984), 285;
Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Indiana University Press, 1987), 193–195,
http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/book/27214.
6
Cf. Firth, who comes to similar conclusions. Firth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 430.
7
Though divided, 11:1 and 12:27-31 provide an account of the beginning and end of the conquest of
Rabbah. Scene, in this paper, is used to refer to a textual unit within a greater narrative that is the smallest divisible
part of a greater episode. It is the delineation of single event, or a series of events indivisibly tied together by the
narrator. It would be equivalent to a pericope in Gospel studies. The beginning of this scene is found in the
exposition beginning the first scene of the episode of David’s trial.

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the greater narrative of First and Second Samuel, 2 Sam 11-12 forms a single narrative unit

describing the fall and restoration of David. This narrative consists of two episodes, David’s sin

and Nathan’s confrontation. Each of these episodes is further made up of multiple scenes. It

becomes difficult to separate the two larger episodes because 11:27 functions as a sort of Janus

verse:8 it is both the conclusion of Ch. 11 and the exposition of 11:27-12:25. The author of

Second Samuel uses this verse (with 12:1a) as the first half an inclusio, corresponding to 12:24-

25, to indicate that the Lord’s displeasure has subsided and His promises to David will endure. In

11:27, the narrator breaks frame and provides a rare instance of judgment: the words “but the

thing which David did was wicked in the eyes of YHWH” tell the reader that David’s actions

have not gone unnoticed.9 This is joined with the notice that Bathsheba bore David a son, the

member of his household first to be affected by this sin. These two things do not bode well and

orient the sin of David to his family and to his relationship with his Lord. This inclusio and the

contents of the enclosed verses show that the God’s promise of an enduring house for David (2

Sam. 7:12-16) is specifically at stake in this trial (cf. 12:10-12, 14). The concluding half of the

inclusio features the resolution of the two events in 11:27—God’s evaluation of David’s actions

and a child from Bathsheba. In it, “her”—Uriah’s wife—finally becomes “his [David’s] wife”

(24) and he receives another son, a son whose name is reminiscent of the word for peace.10 Most

importantly, YHWH loves the child—His displeasure is no longer evident (24-25). Despite all

8
“Janus parallelism” refers to lines in Hebrew poetry that go with what came before and with what follows.
Here, then, a Janus verse is a verse that is indispensably part of the preceding and following episodes.
9
Cf. Jean Louis Ska, “Our Fathers Have Told Us”: Introduction to the Analysis of Hebrew Narratives,
Subsidia Biblica 13 (Roma: Editrice Pontificio Instituto Biblico, 1990), 74.
10
So C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel: Two Volumes in One, trans. James
Martin, Commentary on the Old Testament v. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1985), 393; Joyce G. Baldwin, 1
and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 8 (Leicester, England ;
Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 241.

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that has happened, God’s love still rests on David, in this case on his son, and He will still bring

His promises to pass.

Turning from the structure of the story, the way the narrator tells the story—especially

the use of point of view and characterization—likewise furthers the theological purposes of the

narrator. Despite Berlin and Ska’s reservations, Chatman’s three perspectival categories are

helpful here.11 The author narrates the story with David as the character of interest—as he has

been throughout all of First and Second Samuel: David is presented as the one who may

potentially lose everything. Conceptually, the narrator begins with God’s judgment of the

situation in 11:27: he writes the rest of his narrative through this lens. The tension concerning

David is elevated, then, because we know in part what God thinks and have seen His response

already to Eli and Saul. Perceptually, the narrator usually adopts an external view of the action

and dialogue—he does not directly recount what is going on in the characters heads—but at

times adopts an internal view. We first see Nathan come on the scene and confront David; we are

given the view of an external observer in the room (external focalization). Then, when Nathan

leaves, the camera focuses on David and his distress. We are given the eyes of the servants

(internal focalization), to experience with them the strangeness of David’s behavior. Finally, the

narrator gives us a perspective with David as he receives the news concerning his son and

responds. The narrated time moves in accord with these perspective shifts, initially moving

quickly from David’s sin to confrontation—many months are covered. The narrative

11
We could define Chatman’s categories in this way: the perceptual point of view categorizes the
perspective through which events are seen, the conceptual point of view categorizes the perspective by which events
are evaluated, and the interest point of view categorizes the greater perspective for which the event are presented.
Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 47–49, 84;
Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
Press, 1978), 151–153,
https://ia801606.us.archive.org/21/items/StoryAndDiscourseNarrativeStructureInFictionAndFilm/chatman.seymour
_story.and.discourse_narrative.structure.in.fiction.and.film1.pdf; Ska, Our Fathers Have Told Us, 78–79.

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subsequently slows down to relate the dialogue between David and Nathan. After Nathan leaves,

the narrated time slows down even further: we are given a snapshot of seven days, with more

detail than what has come before. On the seventh day, narrated time approaches narrative time:

we are with David, as he sees his servants, then knows, then speaks, and then receives their

response.12 These changes provide a dynamic account of the whole story but serve especially to

emphasize the death of David’s son and David’s response. It demonstrates, in contrast with the

example of Saul earlier, a repentant man seeking the Lord on behalf of his family, on behalf of a

child cursed because of his sin. It paints David as truly repentant and truly pious. The positive

judgment the narrator suggests with this slowed down account is confirmed in the next segment

as YHWH accepts David’s son Solomon.

The narrator’s manipulation of point of view also employs dramatic irony in the first

scene, when Nathan confronts David.13 We know, because of 11:27, that this parable is the

beginning of God’s indictment of David, but we are also aware that David lacks this knowledge.

We know with Nathan that David’s judgment is self-condemning, yet he discovers this only with

Nathan’s powerful two-word condemnation: ‫אתה ה ִאיׁש‬, “You are the man” (12:7).14

The last of these greater literary devices used by the author to relate his story, and

achieve his theological purpose, is characterization. Confirming our judgment that David is the

12
Because we previously were seeing the narrative with the servants, we know more than David knows but
now discover the knowledge again with him.
13
Cf. Ska, Our Fathers Have Told Us, 60.
14
Park sees ambiguity as a key device employed in our narrative. He defines ambiguity as words or text
units with a plurality of possible referents (in context, he must mean “senses”) meant to mask the narrator’s intention
in order to achieve a specific purpose. I have argued above that the author is not ambiguous but quite clear in
providing God as the conceptual point of reference. Byungduck Park, “An Exegetical-Literary Study of Narrative
Intention in 2 Samuel 12:15-23” (Master’s Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2009), 35.

© J. Alexander Rutherford - 2017
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character of interest in this narrative, he is the only round character portrayed. Everyone else

plays the role of an agent: they are necessary for the narrative but we are not given insight into

their person. Furthermore, the author carefully uses the naming of Bathsheba to demonstrate

David’s restoration in 12:24. Until then, Bathsheba is always referred to by the narrator neutrally

(woman, she) or, more often, in relation to Uriah (11:3, 26; 12:10, 15).15 Her presence and the

way she is referred to is a constant reminder of David’s sin, yet in 12:24, she is identified for the

second time by name and, most significantly, as David’s wife.16 This demonstrates—from God’s

point of view as conveyed by the narrator—that David’s sin has been covered, that she can be

called his wife, and sets the stage for the acceptance of their son. All these large-scale literary

devices employed by the author First and Second Samuel work together to demonstrate the

restoration of David despite his moral failure and, more specifically, God’s continuing

commitment to uphold his promises through David. Turning now to the smallest of literary

devices, we will see how the author uses word repetition to achieve his purpose.

Word Level Literary Devices

Robert Alter, in his Art of Biblical Narrative, identifies the use of Leitwort as the

intentional repetition of and poetic interaction with (i.e., word play) a word root throughout a

narrative to refer immediately to meaning and the theme at hand.17 The phenomena of Leitwörter

will be referred to as ‘key words’ in this paper. Differing from Alter slightly on his requirement

of immediate reference to meaning, key words will be defined here as words or word roots that

15
The one exception is when the servant reveals her identity by name to David (11:3).
16
Cf. Stephen Ronald Walkup, “The Authoritative Positions of Bathsheba, David, Joab, Nathan, and Uriah
in 2 Samuel 11-12” (Master’s Thesis, Denver Seminary, 2006), 107.
17
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 95.

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the author repeats for structural or thematic purposes. That is, ‘key words’ describes the author’s

use of words to tie scenes, episodes, or larger narrative units together and/or communicate a

significant theme. The use of a repeated word to tie separate instances of dialogue or separate

statements together will also be considered as an example of this phenomenon.

Regarding the use of key words, several commentators have noted the frequent repetition

of ‫) ׁשלח‬šālaḥ, to send) in 2 Sam 11-12.18 It is only used three times in 11:27-12:25, but 15 times

across both chapters (23 times when Ch. 10 is included). The sending actions performed by David

and then by God in Ch. 12 provide the main scene-changing events: David sends and inquires, and

then sends and sins. He sends for Uriah and sends him back to his death. Finally, God sends Nathan

to David to rebuke him and then sends Nathan one last time to confirm that his child has received

His favor. Youngblood draws attention to the theological interplay of power demonstrated through

the repetition of this verb:19 David sends as he wills, to serve his lust and to kill in order to cover

his tracks—he flexes his authority with a mere word, without regard for others. Yet Ch. 12 begins

with God sending His prophet, the harbinger of God’s judgment against David, and the episode

ends with God’s love for Solomon, communicated by sending. The narrator uses the key word ‫ׁשלח‬

primarily for structural purposes, to tie the two episodes together and provide key scene transitions,

but he also employs the authority implied by the act of sending to subtly remind the reader of a

key theological theme—that despite the power of the king, God is in control.

18
Firth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 426; Ronald F. Youngblood, 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E.
Garland, Rev. ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary v. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006), 443; Robert
Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1999),
257.
19
Youngblood, 1 & 2 Samuel, 443.

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Within the scene of David’s indictment (12:1-14), we see the narrator use two words twice

each to tie the parable together with David and his actions in the following interaction. The first is

the word ‫( חמל‬ḥāmal, to have compassion), found only twice in First and Second Samuel. First,

Nathan describes the rich man as being “loath to take an animal from his flock or his cattle” (12:4)

to serve to the traveller visiting him. David goes on to condemn the man, and so himself “on

account of his lack of compassion” (6). David is shown to have the right instinct of a judge to

recognize and pronounce judgment on merciless behavior when he sees it, but fails to recognize

his own lack of compassion in his taking of Uriah’s wife. So this repetition adds to the irony

already tangible in David’s response. Second, Nathan describes the lamb’s intimacy with its owner

with the word ‫חיק‬
ָ (ḥēq, bosom). Like a daughter, the poor man holds the lamb close and displays

affection towards it. Nathan then repeats this word after revealing to David his sin, digging the

knife deep into David’s soul by relating Uriah’s intimacy with Bathsheba—the intimacy of the

poor man with his sheep—with the intimacy David enjoyed with those who once were Saul’s

wives because of God.20 This rhetorical move demonstrates the skill of Nathan’s speech and serves

the narrator’s purpose to emphasize for the reader the weight of David’s sin.

The last key word that we will consider is the frequent repetition of ‫( בָיִָת‬bayiṯ, house)

throughout Chs. 11 and 12. ‫ ביִ ת‬appears 19 times across these two chapters, mostly to refer to a

physical house (11:2, 4, 9-11, 13, 27, 12:15, 20). Though the majority of the uses of “house” are

not clearly theologically significant, the frequency of this term draws the reader’s attention. The

author of Samuel has already used ‫ בית‬as a significant key term in the Davidic covenant recorded

20
The sense is not sexual but familial, as is suggested by its use in the parable and elsewhere in Scripture.

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in 2 Samuel 7 and throughout Samuel (cf. 1 Sam. 2:32-35, 25:28); his use of the word here calls

to mind this theme, of a promise of a sure, enduring, house. We have already seen that this aspect

of the Davidic covenant, the future of his kingship and family, are at stake in our passage; the use

of this key word helps to make this clear. Some of the specific uses of house in Chapter 12 also

reinforce this, referring to the reception of rulership over Israel and Judah (12:8), God’s curse upon

David’s household (12:10-11), and to the house of the Lord (12:20)—which calls to mind the

future house for YHWH that David’s descendant will build (2 Sam. 7:13). The author’s frequent

repetition of “house” draws the reader back to the Davidic covenant in Chapter 7 and subtly

reinforces for the reader what is at stake in our passage, the promised house for David.

We have then seen that, in depicting the rebuke of David in 11:27-12:25, the narrator makes

expert and careful use of the literary tools available to him to paint a masterful portrait of this key

incident in the life of David. We have only been able to scratch the surface of the features found

in this text,21 but have seen from the devices sampled that the narrator has carefully structured his

narrative to communicate the continuation of God’s promises to David despite David’s sin, and

despite the very real consequences David faced and was about to face. With careful attention paid

21
This is especially so when Ch. 12 is considered in light of Ch. 11. Though he is mistaken in his particular
overemphasis on the dynamics of David’s sin, Janzen rightly identifies the prominence of David’s act of “taking” in
both the story Nathan told and the following indictment. There is also a significant use of contrast to heighten the
intensity of the accusation that David “despised the word of the Lord.” Bathsheba is said to have been performing a
ritual cleaning for purity, in accord with the law (11:4), when David takes her, breaking law on the counts of
coveting and adultery. Then, when David contemplates and commits murder, breaking the commands of his Lord,
Uriah—the Hittite—is faithful to his lord and his fellow soldiers, expressing concern first for the ark (11:6-13).
When David responds to Nathan’s story with the death penalty (“as the Lord lives, this man is a dead man”), one
must ask if the narrator intends us to believe merely that David has bought completely into Nathan’s rhetoric and is
treating the lamb as person (cf. Ex. 21:14-16, 22:1) or is further emphasizing how far David has fallen from the
law—he is not even sure what the proper penalty is. The repetition of the murder of Uriah, twice in 12:9, with
Bathsheba in the middle and then the repetition of ‫שה‬ ָ ‫א‬
ִָ ָ‫תָלָָךָל‬
ָ‫ח‬ָ‫ק‬
ָ ָ‫ ל‬in vv. 9 and 10 with ‫ׁשתֹו‬
ָ ‫א‬ִָ and ‫תי‬
ִָ ‫תָאּוריהָה ִח‬
ִ ‫ אׁש‬at
least emphasizes the sin as it regards Uriah—as the parable did. David Janzen, “The Condemnation of David’s
`Taking’ in 2 Samuel 12:1-14,” JBL 131 (2012): 209–20; Keil and Delitzsch, Joshua, 389.

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to the literary devices the narrator has used, we see more clearly his purpose in presenting us with

this portrait of David’s sin with Bathsheba. Right when we might expect, from what we have

already read earlier about Eli and Saul, God to reject David as His king and find someone after

His own heart, we see David’s deep repentance and God’s gracious mercy in withholding death

(12:13). This, with the implicit confirmation in 12:25-31 that God’s promises to David in 2 Samuel

7 will be fulfilled, demonstrates that David is the king of God’s choosing, the one after His own

heart.

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14

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https://ia801606.us.archive.org/21/items/StoryAndDiscourseNarrativeStructureInFiction
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df.

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